“Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, there a church of God exists, even if it swarms with many faults.” ~John Calvin
The older I get, the more nonsectarian I become. Except for cults, I attend about any church I want. I feel like Dolly Parton in Steel Magnolias (1989): “God doesn’t care what church you go to, as long as you show up.”
Most Protestant and Evangelical churches, indebted to Martin Luther, and even to the early church fathers and church councils, share the same core doctrines that we call Orthodoxy. And most, at least the ones I attend, still hold to biblical inerrancy and decency.
Therefore, I suspect God sanctioned sectarianism as a way of disseminating Truth, the way He created a tree to branch outward from a single trunk or the way He allowed the first missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, to separate (Acts 15:36-41). Now, instead of two missionaries, He had two missionary teams: Barnabas and John Mark, Paul and Silas.
This beginning of division and multiplication for His Church resembles the beginning of division and multiplication of His creatures: egg and sperm team up, become a single entity, then begin to grow by dividing. Division and multiplication result in growth.
So, to me, sectarianism is not a problem but a natural process of development. As there is a variety of people, there is a variety of religious expressions stemming from a single Orthodox, Christian core.
The world had unity before the Tower of Babel, and God broke it up (Genesis 11:1-9), showing that God prefers variety (distinctiveness, complexity) to homogeneity (unity, ecumenism). Observe, for instance, the many varieties of entities in the natural world: insects, plants, sealife, animals, colors and hues, even autumn leaves. God doesn’t make anything in nature monochrome, homogeneous, carbon copy, duplicate, or mass-produced—we do that. Everything God creates is an oner: one of a kind (even identical twins are mirror images, with distinct fingerprints). The same with churches. As there are no two leaves or snowflakes alike, there are no two churches alike.
In one yellow splash on the map, I attended over fifty area churches: Baptist, Bible, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Reformed, high church, low church, nondenominational. I browse churches the way some people browse jewelry stores. A rare taste, don’t you think? And as people sometimes drop money at a jewelry store, I sometimes drop money in an offering plate. Only I’m confident I’m getting more bang for my buck than they will ever get for theirs. They are laying up treasures on earth; I am “laying up treasures … where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break through and steal” (Matthew 6:19, 20).
Still, the other day, I heard of a certain church whose members went out and sold their jewelry so they could bring the money to the house of the Lord. The following Sunday that little church collected $40,000 for a special mission project. That was putting gold to good use, don’t you think?
“Aren’t you posted to a local church?” you may ask.
Yes, I attend a local church regularly, but there are still many Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights when I can go elsewhere because of special meetings.
In one area where we lived, there was a nearby nondenominational conference center where people came for a week at a time, as a retreat (paying for food and lodging on the grounds). These guests spent their summer vacation in church. The center was holding services mornings, afternoons, and evenings every day May through August (periodically the rest of the year); and when I learned that I could attend services nightly (driving in, for free), I was elated. What a wonderful idea!
This suggests that it’s a shame that we have such large, magnificent edifices closed most of the week—going to waste—when they could be opened, doing something. Pastor, if you’re not going to be doing anything else with that lofty building 95 percent of the time, why not take in the homeless, feed the poor, or open the doors for prayer meetings or day services? Surely there is more that you can do for God than put up security cameras and post armed guards to patrol empty corridors. What are you saving the space for anyway, “seeing then that all these things will be dissolved” when the world ends in a firestorm (2 Peter 3:11)? That building is as much a resource to be given to God as that quiet money you’re coveting from some parishioner’s wallet.
You may say, “Oh, we can’t do that. Our insurance won’t allow it.”
I know of churches with three-foot-thick masonry walls that double as emergency shelters. What do you mean your insurance won’t allow it? What you really mean is you want to preserve that pretty church as a pristine mausoleum (a memorial, a sepulchre). You don’t want anyone to get it dirty. Then I doubt that God will show up when the doors open, because His interest is human beings, not heirlooms.
“As a fresh start, the church should give away all her endowments to the poor and needy.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.” ~William Tyndale
This particular conference center that I often attended was a magical place with administration building, bookstore, cafeteria, separate cafe, hotel-like lodging, indoor and outdoor recreational facilities, swimming pool, private beach, and a large, unair-conditioned, primitive tabernacle that would hold hundreds of people (and often SRO at that): a world of its own. The services were enriched by a team of talented musicians, professors of music from Christian universities, who donated their services for the summer. Weekend musical guests and speakers were people with name recognition. After evening services my family and I could walk down to the beach and watch the sunset or play putt-putt golf under the floodlights.
Even our regular church home was casual in summer. Special guests often dropped by, there were after-service senior sings, or sometimes we were treated to ice cream or hot sandwiches on the loggia. Evidence that you don’t have to cancel Sunday night service in summer: just provide a more relaxing format.
What I have noticed about most of these churches I’ve attended is that congregants and I are human beings trying to serve the Lord the best we know how. Some of us believe things one way, some another; but when we’re talking eternity, we stand on sacred ground. There is a reverence in some staider churches that I admire and long for in the looser megachurches. I have been as spiritually touched by the ministry of the National Christian Choir (Presbyterian), Prestonwood Baptist Church Choir, Thomas Road Baptist Church, and Chancel Choir of Reformed churches as I have been by that of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Pastor Jim Cymbala (Pentecostal). These particular choirs and churches take seriously their call to Christian service and are committed to excellence. None is playing church.
One of my mentors used to preach, “God will have His Church. Communism won’t deny Him that Church. Islam won’t deny Him that Church. Buddhism, Hinduism, humanism, Liberalism, Shintoism, and Taoism won’t deny Him that Church. God is building His Church, and nothing down here will stop Him.”
Someday, “when we all get to heaven,” we children of God will be together around the Throne singing “a new song, saying, You are worthy,” O Lord, for You have “redeemed us by Your blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9). If assembled together then, why not now?
“Churches and chapels would not so often be empty if ministers would take heed what they preach as well as how they preach.” ~Charles H Spurgeon
Copyright © 2013 Alexandra Lee